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Assassin's Creed Mirage review: the most enjoyable Assassin's Creed game for years

Everything is permitted, but stabbing is the most permitted.

Basim, main character of Assassin's Creed Mirage, looks at his pet eagle perched on his arm (which in this play through is in a falcon skin, but still)
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

I'm close to being whatever the Assassin's Creed equivalent of a Pokémon genwunner is. It's not like I'm snobby about the newer, more action-oriented Creeds; I welcomed the shift brought in by Assassin's Creed Origins, which shook the series up a bit, and I loved Cassandra kicking her way around Ancient Greece. Valhalla, although it had a relative dearth of things to parkour around, was a fun open-world RPG. Which I suppose is the point.

Assassin's Creed hasn't been a game about a group of assassins following a creed and striking from the shadows for a long time. Here I would say that Basim, protagonist of Assassin's Creed Mirage kicks down the door and kills everyone in the room, except this new entry in the series is smaller, more focused, and once again concerned largely with stealth, and is all the better for it. So it's more appropriate to say Basim snuck in through an open window and is choking everyone out one by one.

Basim appeared in huge-mapped Viking romp Assassin's Creed Valhalla as an ultimately quite important supporting character. He has a part in AC's larger framing involving super-advanced transhuman beings and genetic memories, but that is unimportant to Mirage (and arguably the series in general, but that's by the by). Mirage tells the story of a younger Basim, a street thief who joins the Hidden Ones after a contract to steal a mysterious artefact goes awry, and his found family of tiny orphans is murdered. The plot follows Basim's rise though the ranks of the assassins, working with outside groups and thinking about the nature of freedom as they liberate 9th Century Baghdad by stabbing a pyramid of increasingly evil people, against a backdrop of extreme political instability.

Basim speaks to his mentor Roshan in Assassin's Creed Mirage
The map of Baghdad in Assassin's Creed Mirage
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

This is, broadly speaking, the plot of most Assassin's Creed games, and Basim is an able enough main character to carry it. He's extremely dedicated to the creed, bless him. Mirage's smaller size really helps focus the plot, though, as it does everything. Because all this is taking place in one city, it's much easier to track the key players than on a map that takes up half a country; you can remember that this freedom fighter is kind of a showy PR guy even if he's your ally, that the academic burned the books at the library to cover up stealing one in particular, and that the doctor performing experiments on patients is a nervy piece of shit. You can drop some threads of an investigation if you want to pick up a different, interesting one on the other side of the city, without fear that you'll forget what else is going on.

You can still ignore most of it and just follow around quest markers, of course, although Mirage is trying to push you into active investigation a bit more. Sometimes you'll be dropped into a level and have to find out why a library is full of soldiers by looking around with your actual eyes until you find the murdered librarian, which I enjoyed very much. Sometimes it becomes a bit frustrating, as in the assassinations that require you to get a coin that operates as a ticket to get into a back room. Getting that coin means speaking to an apparently random merchant elsewhere in the market, who shines the coppery gold colour of a useful person in your special detecto Eagle vision, rather than the red of an enemy. You'd also hear her having a fight if you passed by. But both these methods require a lot of walking around with no direction. I don't mind finding things myself, but a prompt to 'Ask other merchants how to get the coin' rather than just 'Find out how to get the coin' would have done wonders.

Nothing ever really stumps you for that long, though, again because the world is smaller and more dense. It's not actually small except in relative terms, and there's still a lot to do in Mirage. But doing it all is much more feasible when you can clear most of the game in about 20 hours. It also means Baghdad itself feels much more dense and alive, with districts that you come to recognise and a Hidden Ones bureau in each one. There are secrets to rootle out without following quest markers, and freelance assassin contracts to take on that earn you tokens to spend in the course of your investigations.

Basim syncs with the city of Baghdad as he perches on top of a minaret tower in Assassin's Creed Mirage
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft
Basim throws a knife at an enemy in the distance, as one he's just assassinated dies beside him, in Assassin's Creed Mirage
Basim in a fight with a big, heavily armoured enemy, on a rooftop, in Assassin's Creed Mirage
Rather than a double assassination skill, you can kill assassinate a second enemy in quick succession after dusting off one, with a throwing knife if you have one. Throwing knives don't work on big heavy armoured lads like the one pictured on the right, though. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

These tokens tie in to the increased stealth of it all. While you can, at later levels, take on a few soldiers at once, it really is best to go unseen in Mirage, creeping through tall grass, hiding behind corners, and crouching on top of rooftops to perform a quick, silent assassination. A dedicated assassin will case the whole building as much as possible, using their pet eagle (an innovation returning from the later games in the series) to mark guards and spot unhelpful items like alarm bells, which can be disabled, or helpful items like explosive jars of oil.

Basim has a combination of tools and skills at his disposal that bring together good bits from the whole series - the tokens, for example, can be used to bribe different factions, so mercenaries will fight alongside him or a merchant will smuggle him into a target building. But he can also wear a disguise for some levels, or listen to gossip that reveals a secret entrance. Equipment is pared back to a half dozen tools, limited to throwing knives and one other - unless you spend skill points to unlock new ones in one of your three equally restrained levelling trees. I favour, as I did back in the day, the poisoned blow dart. There are throwable traps and smoke bombs. Weapons, rather than a grab bag of whatever is around you, are similarly limited to a sword and a dagger.

Mirage cleverly drives you to engage with treasure hunting, because without infiltrating guarded areas or solving some traversal puzzles to open chests, you won't get new swords or armour, and neither will you get upgrade schematics. If you don't try, you're stuck with the bog standard stuff. It makes everything you do feel more worthwhile, rather than being optional filler. I wore an off the shoulder number that reduced the impact of my naughty actions if civillian witnesses saw me. Mirage brings back a notoriety meter, which you can pay to remove, or rip down wanted posters, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciated having that impact debuffed, because despite my efforts to be stealthy I got seen a lot.

The menu screen showing Basim's gear in Assassin's Creed Mirage
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Ubisoft

But that was usually my own fault. Sometimes, yes, it will be perhaps a result of the parkour auto-pathing deciding you want to, for some reason, leap off the wall into sight of a whole squad of goons, rather than onto the top of a pile of crates, but that's sort of an "it was ever thus" issue with Assassin's Creed that you sort of hope Ubi will fix one day. Often, though, if you look around a bit more or take your time you'll see e.g. a crate full of leopards nearby that you can open, and watch from afar as they draw all the guards away.

It's the most fun I've had in an Assassin's Creed game for years. Ubisoft have made a properly cool city to run around, that you can approach almost like a real place. Believe it or not, it did make snese that there was a crate of leopards to unleash in that instance. When I wasn't running around sticking a knife into someone's neck, I loved going places by boat on one of the rivers that network the city, to watch people as I floated along, noting where districts transitioned from poor ones dependent on industry to rich ones full of lilac and roses.

Mirage takes the good bits from what the series has become in decades of not being a stealth RPG, polishes them up a bit, and puts them together with some of the best bits from the early games in the series, in a neat little package. It's smaller, sure, but you don't miss out on anything, and when you've finished you don't feel like you wasted any time. This is how big companies should make better games.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher Ubisoft.

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